The battle over who gets paid what at the BBC is one which began long ago

The BBC has published the names and salaries of its highest-earning actors and presenters. Picture:

The BBC has published the names and salaries of its highest-earning actors and presenters. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Augstein - Credit: AP

The BBC has finally revealed what its top earners are paid, but huge egos and huger fees are not anything new, writes Michael Cole.

Chris Evans earns a whopping �2.2million a year. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Chris Evans earns a whopping �2.2million a year. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Nobody ever discussed money at the BBC, but everyone wondered how much the others were getting.

It would have been thought vulgar to mention money. But it was everyone’s obsession.

The big divide was between the staff and the freelance broadcasters. This was the difference between those on a decent salary and those paid like Hollywood stars.

I was a staff reporter for more than 20 years. I worked for the BBC around the world. My work won two Royal Television Society awards. But the most I ever earned in one year, 1987, was £47,000.

Strictly Come Dancing presenter Claudia Winkleman is the only woman in the top ten of highest earner

Strictly Come Dancing presenter Claudia Winkleman is the only woman in the top ten of highest earners at the BBC. Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire - Credit: PA

At the same time, reporters who’d switched to be freelance presenters, at the suggestion of the BBC, were getting £220,000 per annum, for simply reading the Autocue.

This caused enormous resentment among staff who felt they worked harder than the so-called “talent”. And on-the-road reporters took the risks that didn’t exist in an air-conditioned studio.

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It was the BBC that created this conflict. The Corporation also encouraged freelances to set up personal companies to mitigate their tax liabilities, corporation tax being around half personal surtax rates.

One very famous colleague, still broadcasting, was reluctant to surrender his staff status. He believed public service broadcasting was an almost sacred duty. But he switched because divorce had impoverished him. The only way to rebuild his life was to make enormous sums as a freelance.

Graham Norton earned up to �900,000, but the �2,5million he was paid for his chat show is not includ

Graham Norton earned up to �900,000, but the �2,5million he was paid for his chat show is not included. Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Another friend was different. He loved the lavish fees the BBC paid him just for leaving the staff. He was clever. He didn’t have an agent. But he knew the presenter with whom he shared the BBC 9 O’Clock News did have one.

My friend simply told the BBC: “Pay me what he’s getting”.

It did. And my friend did not have pay 15% of his fees to an agent.

It was the arrival of agents in news and current affairs that inflated fees, just as it has done in football. Suddenly, news was not an essential service to the nation. It was a commodity to be sold. It was show business. That meant inflated egos and enormous fees.

Match of the Day host and pundit Gary Lineker earns �1.8million. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire

Match of the Day host and pundit Gary Lineker earns �1.8million. Picture: Ian West/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The staff at TV News did not know whether to laugh or cry when their editor and the BBC’s managing director went round to the Kensington house of an ITN newscaster to beg him to join BBC News. The man, amazed to be courted over his own breakfast table, had no trouble in dictating his own very generous financial terms.

The trouble is the BBC has no idea of business. Its job is to spend money, not make it. It is easily taken for a ride. Almost every BBC presenter could be secured for half the amount they are being paid for the simple reason that most would struggle to find work elsewhere.

Nearly all of them have been made by the BBC. One of its jobs is to find new talent. By stupidly paying more than the market rate to existing presenters, the Corporation is denying chances to fresh talent who could do the job as well or better. And at a fraction of the cost.

It is simply false for my old colleague, Tony Hall, now Director General, to claim that the BBC has to pay vast sums to its presenters or lose their services. Most would work for a fraction of their BBC fees because their TV fame opens up huge money-making opportunities off-screen.

The truth is the BBC is clueless when it comes to negotiating with show business agents whose livelihoods depend upon jacking up the fees of their clients.

It’s untrue that staff are paid less than freelance broadcasters because they are guaranteed a job for life, so long as they pay their BBC licence fee. I know several distinguished broadcasters who were pushed out when they got too old or their faces no longer fitted.

Many “staffers” were like me: they thought the job was more important than the money. Sadly, you can love a job, but it does not love you back. My dear friend Moira Stuart stayed on the staff for years, on a miserly salary, before the BBC had a fit of conscious and started to pay her properly.

Richard Dimbleby, the face of the BBC in the 1950s and 60s, existed on 13-week contracts. He was a true freelance and paid modestly. Those who will always live in his shadow are nothing of the sort. They are BBC staff to everyone except the taxman. They are just overpaid.

Michael Cole worked was a reporter for Anglia TV 1967/68 and then joined the BBC where he worked as a reporter, foreign correspondent and producer until October 1988. He lives in Suffolk.